When Did Spider-Man Comics Get So Dark?


  • Spider-Man is no stranger to having intense comics that explore morality, human weakness, and the triumph of good over evil.
  • While the amount of dark storylines has increased in frequency, Spider-Man comics have explored dark themes from the very beginning.
  • The death of Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy became turning points that forever altered Peter Parker’s life, Marvel’s Spider-Man comics, and the comics industry as a whole.

Spider-Man is one of the most recognized Marvel Comics franchises, raking in billions of dollars globally from merchandising alone. From highly acclaimed movies to sensational video games, the Webslinger’s popularity has only skyrocketed in recent years. But his personal life in the comic books has been in shambles for as long as fans can remember. Often dubbed the Parker Luck, Spidey’s career as a crimefighter has almost always negatively impacted his civilian life, be it because of his own actions or otherwise. Of late, Spider-Man’s stories have gotten darker, with writers preferring to pile new challenges on him at the cost of wrecking his relationships.

From the start, Spider-Man has been a reluctant hero. It was a tragedy that started him on the path of a costumed vigilante, and it has been a never-ending cycle of tragedies that shaped his life so far. Peter Parker has experienced grief like no other character. It has made him question the purpose of his secret identity, especially when people near to him have to pay the price. With each passing era, Spider-Man’s stories have become progressively darker, raising the question of where it all went wrong for the New York’s Friendly Neighborhood hero. The answer can be found hiding in the past.

A Simple Request Paved The Way For Darker Exploration

Misled by his witty nature and outrageous wisecracks, readers often forget that Spider-Man has a dark origin story. The death of Uncle Ben in his very first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 (by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Stan Goldberg, and Artie Simek) forces Peter Parker to reevaluate his life. From then on, the guilt of losing someone due to his own inaction haunts him and drives his crime-fighting crusade. For a time, Spider-Man had faith in his own powers and belief in himself. In the now iconic If This Be My Destiny…! storyline, the Webhead made a breakthrough in his struggles on the back of sheer motivation, if only for the sake of all the lives dependent on him. However, the back-to-back deaths of the Stacys had a long-lasting impact on Peter’s mental health. Captain Stacy’s passing reminded Peter of his uncle’s death, digging up feelings of remorse for putting on a mask that puts people’s lives in danger despite his best efforts.

For most comic book historians, the death of Gwen Stacy is when comic books, in general, got darker. It also cemented Spider-Man’s status quo as an unlucky superhero, which is emblematic of all the problems with the character these days. In The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and John Romita), Peter’s longtime nemesis, Norman Osborn, became increasingly unstable. Eventually, his son Harry’s deteriorating health sent him on a downward spiral. Once again, taking on his Green Goblin identity, Norman goes after Peter, taking out all his anger on him. In the final climactic moment, the Goblin throws an unconscious Gwen off the George Washington Bridge. Spider-Man tries to catch her with his webbing, but the whiplash breaks her neck, killing her instantly. Her death was a turning point in an industry that had severe restrictions on artistic freedom imposed by the Comics Code Authority. It paved the way for more complex storytelling and gave Spider-Man his greatest defeat.

Since its foundation in 1954, the Comics Code Authority had a list of moral codes for publishers to adhere to, including displays of violence, death, and drugs. Gwen Stacy’s ultimate fate got the ball rolling for radical changes. However, a Spider-Man story that took place a few issues back made the first chink in the CCA’s armor. When the United States Health Department asked Marvel to write a story about drug abuse, Stan Lee took it as immunity to flaunt the CCA’s Code. The ensuing storyline that ran in The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (by Stan Lee, Gil Kane, and Artie Simek) broached the subject of drug use by the youth and turned Harry Osborn into a victim of addiction. Since the arc garnered good responses from the public, the CCA had to relax its hold. Although not necessarily dark, the story expanded the boundaries of what comic books could explore. But Spider-Man’s life changed forever. With the freedom to explore grittier storylines came a remarkable amount of abuse on the characters, both physical and mental.

Spider-Man Has Become A Product Of The Creative Teams Working On The Title

Often, a creator’s views rub off on their characters. Steve Ditko was famously an ardent follower of Objectivism, which believes in self-interest and self-reliance. When he created Spider-Man, he modeled the character on Objectivist principles of having a strong moral sense of doing what is right. As heroic as it sounds, his triumphs always came at a personal cost. Objectivism in and of itself may have no bearing on the darker tone of the stories. But the aspect of heaping challenges on poor Parker as a show of his character has permeated into the hero’s mainstream identity. However, it would be wrong to point everything at Ditko since the adage “With great powers comes great responsibility” is something Stan Lee invented for Spider-Man. Forever marking him with guilt, those words forced Spider-Man to grapple with the severe consequences of his masked affairs.

The ’80s saw a surge in darker and more mature themes in comic book stories everywhere, and the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man was no exception. While Batman was having his career-defining moment over at DC, the Wall-Crawler had his own dark renaissance with a gut-punching tale of man vs. wild. Still considered one of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever told, J. M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck’s 1987 storyline, Kraven’s Last Hunt, opened the floodgates of more grimdark possibilities. For the next decade, Peter Parker had to fend off attacks from the murderous Carnage, confront his best-friend-turned-worst-enemy Harry Osborn, and find the truth about his identity in the now infamous Clone Saga. The emotional turmoils and taxing challenges rolled out in this era have become the character’s trademark, prompting writers to outdo the events of the past.

Spider-Man celebrated his 60th anniversary last year, but not much has changed in his life. From being haunted by the ghosts of his loved ones to selling his marriage to The Devil, Peter Parker has found himself on the short end of the stick every step of the way. Even his fated love story with Mary Jane has turned into a star-crossed romance, making fans increasingly frustrated at the on-and-off nature of their relationship. Bleak stories about a beaten and battered Spider-Man reeling from the blows of his personal demons have become the norm. Given the trend they’ve set, it may be a long time before Marvel Comics finds a way out of the grave they’ve dug for Peter Parker.

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